Jeff Corey was a character actor, starring in films like True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a blacklisted Hollywood figure in the 1950s, and later, a beloved acting coach to such stars as Leonard Nimoy, James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams, and Jack Nicholson.
After Corey died in 2002, his wife and daughter received four portraits of Corey in the mail, which turned out to be from his former student, Nicholson. One such painting appears as the frontispiece for Corey’s forthcoming memoir, Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act, which his daughter Emily Corey helped complete. EW can exclusively reveal a first look at Nicholson’s painting, below — along with a letter from Emily Corey explaining its significance, and how her father influenced Nicholson’s career.
The Portrait Jack Painted: A Thank-You Note to My Father’s Acting Student, Jack Nicholson by Emily Corey
When your father is a character actor in Hollywood you grow up seeing him on screen as a thug, a thief, and a crook on a regular basis. You know the other side of him—the sweet, kind man who wouldn’t hurt a fly—but you’re never quite sure the rest of the world sees him that way.
Yet, in spite of a career playing bad guys, my father, Jeff Corey, had ample opportunity to show his true nature in Hollywood. He walked away from a successful career in film in the 1950s when he refused to names names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was blacklisted. Banished from the work he loved to do, he turned to teaching acting.
Everyone in Hollywood studied with him. The studios that were afraid to hire him on camera sent their brightest stars to work with him—James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Jane Fonda, Anthony Perkins and so many others. His classes were filled with legions of unknown actors who, over time, became the who’s who of the Hollywood elite as they learned how to act from him—Leonard Nimoy, Carol Burnett, Cher, and Jack Nicholson just to name a few.
When my father died, it was as if there was a disturbance in the force. My family had lost a father, a grandfather, and a husband–but the large extended family that comprised the actors who had studied with him poured out their love and condolences. The weeks following my father’s death, I spent a lot of time visiting my mother, helping her sift through those letters. The house had an unusual silence we were all trying to get used to. Early one morning, I stepped through the front door and while the silence had not lifted, leaning against side tables and chairs were four portraits of my father I had never seen before.
“Jack sent them,” my mother said, referring to my father’s former student, Jack Nicholson.
“Really?” I said in surprise.
“He painted them,” she said.
I stared at these portraits of my father by a man known around the world for his powerful skills as an actor. I knew Jack was an art lover and while I had never seen his private collection, I had been told it was quite something to behold. But I didn’t know that Jack was also a painter. “Jack called and told me he was sending them over,” my mother continued.
Jack had been a student of my father’s way back when, before he was a star. In those days he would call the house and ask for my father in his gravelly voice, which we could identify as Jack’s but had no idea of what was in store for all of us. Back then Jack was just one of hundreds of struggling actors who walked through our living room on their way to study with my father in his studio in the backyard. It was in my father’s class that Jack met Roger Corman, at the time a fledgling producer. Roger had the wit and wisdom to not only see Jack’s great potential but to grab onto the talents of his fellow classmates, writers Robert Towne and Carol Eastman, who after working for Roger went on to write Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces, respectively. They all met in my father’s class.
So when I saw the portraits Jack had painted I had a deep understanding of what was behind the canvas. Jack knew my father’s enormous creative resources firsthand as well as his remarkable ability to bring out the best in any actor’s performance. He also knew my father’s kindness. When Jack heard my father had passed away he went into his studio and started painting. Four portraits of my father emerged from his memory. Jack had them framed and sent by messenger to my mother—a visual letter of condolence.
Each portrait, individual in character, captures a unique piece of my father’s nature. When my father’s memoir, Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act, was to be published I called Jack and asked if I could use one of the portraits as the frontispiece for the book. He immediately said, “Yes.”
So there it sits, facing the title page, offering a rare glimpse into who my father was: his indomitable spirit, his superb artistic talent, and yes, of course, his kindness. A visual reflection of my father’s life for all the world to see. Thank you, Jack.